Tribute to a Bad Man

We’re living in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started – and this you don’t know – I’ve been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men’s been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him.

Sometimes little gems pass us by, having escaped our attention for one reason or another. Discovering such films is a genuine pleasure, a reminder that there are always cinematic nuggets to chance upon. Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) is a case in point, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. I’ll readily admit here that this may have been at least partially due to a certain prejudice on my part; neither the stars nor the director are people one automatically associates with the western. I guess my enjoyment of Robert Wise’s two earlier genre efforts, coupled with the recommendations of others, drew me to the film. The presence of James Cagney (who made only three westerns himself) and Irene Papas had me feeling less confident. However, I was delighted to find that any reservations were entirely misplaced – if anything, Tribute to a Bad Man proves how the genre has a tendency to bring the best out of talented performers and filmmakers.

The plot recounts a short episode in the life of a young man, a parable of renewal in the best tradition. Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) is a green easterner, a store clerk from Pennsylvania heading west to carve out a new life. Riding into a lush valley, he stumbles into an ambush in progress. A wounded man is pinned down with only the carcass of his slain horse for cover. Miller’s unexpected appearance on the scene drives off the bushwhackers and earns him the gratitude of the man he’s saved. This is Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a prosperous horse rancher and owner of the valley. Miller’s reward is to be taken on as a wrangler, but it also draws him into the harsh and complex world of Rodock. And it is completely his world; Rodock’s wealth and hard-bitten personality have made him the total master of his domain. In a land as yet untouched by the civilizing influence of the law, his authority is absolute and he quite literally holds the power of life and death when any crime takes place. The west at this time was very much a man’s country, with women thin on the ground. Rodock is one of those classic western types who has lived much of his life alone, but there is a woman in his home now. Jocasta Constantine (Irene Papas) is a Greek immigrant he has taken from the Cheyenne saloon where he found her and brought back to his ranch. It’s at this point that the film comes into its own, raising all kinds of questions about trust, suspicion and the way it’s all too easy to hide from and deny one’s true feelings. Rodock has relied on himself and his own instincts for so long that he’s slow to trust. He’s become a hard man, masking a deep insecurity with an uncompromising exterior. There’s a kind of messianic zeal about the way he metes out his brand of justice, hanging any horse thieves who dare raid his stock. But his suspicion of potential criminals extends into his personal life too – he’s consumed with doubt when it comes to Jocasta, fearing the attractions of his head wrangler McNulty (Stephen McNally) and later Miller will be more than she can resist.

Tribute to a Bad Man was adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer, and I’ve yet to see a film derived from his work that’s left me dissatisfied. There’s a timeless quality which I feel comes from the focus on interesting characters and deeply affecting relationships. This isn’t a shoot-em-up western, rather it’s a character study which draws you in gradually. That’s not to say there are no action scenes – there are, but they certainly take second place. Mostly the movie concerns itself with Rodock and his relationship with Jocasta. Even the name Jocasta is highly suggestive, with its allusions to Greek mythology – Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus, who of course unwittingly killed his father and proceeded to marry his mother. I think it’s therefore intended that we see Rodock as a kind of Laius figure, simultaneously in love with Jocasta, deeply suspicious of what it may lead to, and also forever aware of the threat to him posed by younger men. Nevertheless, while an awareness of this aspect can add another layer of appreciation, it’s not an essential reading of the plot. What really matters here is the way an essentially decent man has allowed himself to succumb to cruelty, and how he rediscovers and regains his humanity. In this version Jocasta isn’t the tragic figure but instead represents salvation for Rodock.

I think it’s a pity Robert Wise didn’t make more westerns. All three of his genre efforts are fine movies, although I probably enjoyed Tribute to a Bad Man most. Aside from the rich, classical theme, the movie simply looks great throughout. Filming in CinemaScope, Wise and cameraman Robert Surtees use the wide frame to full effect, and the Colorado locations appear quite spectacular. Furthermore, the interiors are well used too. Wise and Surtees achieve good depth and contrast in those scenes – the grimy, smoky bunkhouse looking particularly authentic. The director’s judgment of the pacing was spot on too, letting scenes play out naturally but never allowing them to overstay their welcome. A polished and professional piece of work all round.

As I said at the beginning, James Cagney simply isn’t someone typically associated with the western – his fast-talking persona seemed to belong to a different period and location. And yet I never once found myself thinking there was anything anachronistic or out of place about his presence in Tribute to a Bad Man – which is a tribute itself to the talent and versatility of the man. Cagney of course wasn’t the first choice for the role of Rodock; Spencer Tracy was initially cast but his reluctance to spend so much time on location led to his leaving MGM and being replaced by Cagney. The character of Rodock wasn’t an easy one to play – he’s not really the bad man the title suggests, at least not  in the formal sense of the word. On their own, the prickliness, uprightness and bursts of cruelty could probably be handled fine by a number of actors. Cagney’s skill though lay in his ability to ensure Rodock never became wholly unlikable at any point; the fundamental honor and decency of the man were never far from the surface and that Irish twinkle would flash in his eyes at just the right moment. Irene Papas is another performer you don’t expect to see in a western – she hasn’t even made that many English language films all told. Once again though we can see this genre encouraging fine performances from people who, on paper anyway, sound like odd choices. Papas was one of only two women in the cast, and her striking Greek features make her stand out even more. This was her Hollywood debut and she carried off the role of Jocasta with style. Her character was at the heart of the story, the one who brings Rodock back to full life, and any weakness would have derailed the whole thing. She got across the right combination of sassiness, allure and soulfulness to make it all entirely believable, and even the significant age difference with Cagney is used to the film’s advantage.

Stephen McNally could play heroes, villains and everything in between with ease. Here he was the villain, a slick opportunist willing to gamble on anything and lacking any real moral sense. Probably his finest moment in the movie comes when he has to endure the sadistic punishment Rodock devises to pay him back for crippling his horses – grueling stuff and well handled by McNally. Don Dubbins was fine as the everyman narrator, ultimately it’s something of a thankless part but he did all that was asked of him. The supporting cast all have smaller roles but Vic Morrow got handed a reasonably meaty part as the embittered son of Cagney’s former partner. The other parts are filled by such familiar faces as Lee Van Cleef. Royal Dano, Jeanette Nolan, Chubby Johnson and James Griffith.

Tribute to a Bad Man is available  from a number of sources on DVD now. There’s a Warner Archive MOD disc out in the US, a Spanish release – which I think is non-anamorphic letterbox – and this Italian edition from A & R Productions which I own. I have a few titles by this company now and I’ve been very satisfied with them so far. The movie is presented in its correct scope ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The print used is crisp, clear and colorful with no significant damage. The film can be viewed either with its original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, and there are no subtitles at all offered. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries. All in all, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a first-rate western in my opinion, and ought to have more fans. I can certainly see myself revisiting it and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it check it out.


47 thoughts on “Tribute to a Bad Man

  1. Like you I am aware of this western but due to reasons mentioned, I too give it a pass. Now that you have reviewed it, I will look for it. Thank you. Best regards.

    • Chris, I kind of felt like kicking myself for not having seen this movie. The casting sounds incongruous but it works remarkably well. Don’t let any preconceived ideas put you off – check it out when you get a chance.

  2. If I’ve seen this , it’s so long ago I don’t remember it. But your review makes me want to get hold of it fast! I too don’t see Cagney as a westerner. Irene Papas was very good in Guns of Navarone. A pity Hollywood didn’t give her more good roles.

    • In my mind’s eye Cagney always seemed to belong on city sidewalks, strutting and quipping. His was a great talent though and the role of Rodock actually fits him like a glove.
      I’ve seen Papas in a number of productions over the years – she’s very memorable in Zorba the Greek – and felt she would seem odd in a western. But no, she blends right in and gives a very sympathetic and believable performance.

  3. I haven’t seen this one in decades Colin but I am a huge Wise fan (in any genre) – at the time I was probably to young to pick up on the allusions to Greek myth but this really makes it sound great – I will get that Italian disc – thanks as ever chum. Must admit, I would love to have seen Tracy in the role too (sounds comparable to the role in BROKEN LANCE)

    • Sergio, I haven’t done any reading on the movie to see if much has been made of the links or references to myth. It kind of leapt out at me due to the name and I thought it was a nice literary touch. I don’t think the film suffers any if viewers don’t pick up on that though as its a solid drama.
      I guess it’s possible to see some similarities between this and Dmytryk’s Broken Lance, especially the presence of the harsh patriarchal figure, although the latter is structurally different and goes off in other directions.

  4. Good movie and Cagney brings something to it that is a little different mainly because it’s not what we are accustomed to seeing him in. Kind of like Run For Cover the previous year. These two films are a long way from The Oklahoma Kid.

    • Yes, I liked Run for Cover too – it is a Nicholas Ray film after all.
      It’s interesting that Cagney should deliver two good western performances late in his career – makes me wish he’d done more in the genre.

  5. Again another excellent choice Colin and for a fairly big budget “star vehicle” Western this film has been somewhat overlooked.It’s odd that Cagney made two Westerns virtually back to back, the other of course being the very fine RUN FOR COVER. Cagney seemed to try to give Don Dubbins’ career a boost, he was excellent playing Cagney’s son in THESE WILDER YEARS. Regarding that film;soap opera is not really my thing but Cagney makes anything worth watching.
    Cagney’s career went in all sorts of different directions in the Fifties with lots of interesting diversions. I also really enjoyed Cagney’s sole stint as a director: SHORT CUT TO HELL a terrific little Noir that is way overdue for a DVD release.
    I totally agree Colin, that it’s a pity Robert Wise never made more Westerns

    • Dubbins seemed to thrive more on television despite Cagney’s efforts to promote him. I thought he was fine in this film and was convincing as the fish out of water on a learning curve.

      John, I’ve never seen Short Cut to Hell but it sounds interesting and I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  6. Colin, when I first read the title of your post I thought you’d profiled James Cagney as a villain though I’ll admit I don’t know how often he has played one. Instead, you’ve both surprised and delighted me by reviewing a western I didn’t know existed and especially one that has Cagney in it. I’ve seen him in very few movies of which the only one I remember, on account of having seen it more than once, is “Angels with Dirty Faces.” I’ll be looking for this film online as well as for the Jack Schaefer story, an added bonus, if I find that too. Many thanks, Colin.

    • Cheers, Prashant. It’s a very enjoyable movie and easy enough to track down. Schaefer’s story may prove a little more difficult to find – I’m hoping to locate a copy myself.

  7. Colin, I saw this film many years ago and it didn’t particularly stay with me. This may be because, like you, Cagney and others in the film are not noted for their contributions to this genre. Many years later I gave the film another watch, just a few months ago, and felt completely differently this time.

    The film has a stark realism about it and this combines beautifully with the stunning Colorado locations. But I found I could not take my eyes off James Cagney throughout – a subtle and powerful performance.

    A truly fine western. Thanks, Colin, for choosing to review it now and remind us all what treasures still await us in this genre.

    • Jerry, you’re right to describe Cagney’s performance in this movie as subtle. Sometimes it seems that it’s his larger than life moments in cinema that get celebrated more, which is understandable given their memorable quality. However, he could be marvelously understated when necessary while never sacrificing any of the intensity.

  8. This is one of those under appreciated westerns. Glad you came to it. I saw it years ago and with “The Oklahoma Kid” in that back of my mind I had reservations but Cagney’s age is really what makes his character so real. We often forget in westerns that so many of them are transplants from the east that it might be easy to dismiss Cagney as misplaced. (Also the problem with Bogart out west.)

    This part plays right into Cagney’s wheelhouse. He means business because he has to. No one is coming to his aid.

    Morrow is quite good as the young man. I like that even after all Cagney thinks Morrow has done there is still a paternal edge to the relationship.

    Good movie that more people should see.

    • Chris, I think Cagney was more successful at leaving behind the eastern, urban aura than Bogart, or at least he managed to incorporate it more realistically into his performance.
      You’re quite right too about Cagney’s age making the movie more real – his character was believably tough and independent because the man playing him was.

  9. I had the same experience. I don’t know why I kept missing this film through the years, but it wasn’t until its recent showing on TCM that I sat down and watched it. I was mesmerized with the story and its telling. I guess we’re lucky that there are still gems to be polished and cherished.

    • I completely agree, Patricia. On the one hand, I felt like kicking myself for not having seen this movie, while another part of me was thrilled to be experiencing such a good film for the first time. It just shows you should never put much faith in preconceptions and, probably more importantly, keep your eyes peeled for undiscovered treasures.

    • It is different, but then that’s a big part of what I love about westerns of this era. The more of them you see, the more aware you become of how many variations existed within the genre.

        • No arguments from me on that score. It does sadden me a little to hear people claim, as they do all too often, that westerns are too formulaic. The fact that someone like myself, who has been a fan of the genre for so long, is still able to get excited by a new (to me) discovery such as this one is testament to the variety and richness of the genre.

          • Exactly, I’m fairly new myself, partly due to my age. I’m currently reading “Ride, Bodly Ride” which is opening my eyes all the more to what the genre has to offer. It’s a reflection of a country, it’s past and its conscience through the guise of a dangerous and celebrated history. Thats something I don’t have over here in the UK so much.

            • I don’t know what age you are. I’m 45 myself and grew up after the classic era of the western had passed. However, I guess I was fortunate that so many of these movies played on TV when I was a kid, and my love of them set in from an early age.
              Like yourself, I was looking at these from the outside – I was born and raised in Northern Ireland – but they still connected with me quite deeply. In fact, I sometimes think that we in Europe, maybe by virtue of our distance, tend to be even more appreciative of the genre.

              • Im in my mid twenties so I’m really enjoying these discoveries. My dad and uncles caught the Western TV shows so saw its eventual decline. For me its part of that American dream we are told so much about, it starts in these films, the possibility of a better life after these events.

                    • I’m guessing this is the part you mean:

                      It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

                    • Yep thats the quote, its quite prophetic when you think about it. Cliche at the same time but full of hope during a time of great danger in the wilderness.

  10. Terrific review of a western that’s often forgotten. I had the same ambivalence when I went to see “Tribute” first run in 1956 on the big screen. My misgivings were quickly swept away by the cast, photography, script and director. Cagney acquitted himself well in a role that is often played in stereotypical fashion by formidable actors. Years later, Cagney (in a social chat that is still memorable) told me he was reluctant to take on the role originally slated for Spencer Tracy. But Cagney loved horses, had farms in upstate New York and on Martha’s Vineyard (where we met) and found the role and environment quite natural. He was pleased to do a western that hopefully erased memories of “The Oklahoma kid”. Thanks for the review and bringing this almost forgotten gem to the attention of fans.

    • Thanks for both the kind words and the info, Garry. It’s great to hear that Cagney thought well of the film, in spite of that initial reluctance, and I think his ease in the role comes across in the finished product.
      It must have been wonderful to have had the opportunity to meet and chat to Cagney – thanks for sharing that.

  11. I too had heard of this but never sought it out. Thanks to you and Garry, I now will. Great article, as always Colin…..nice to see you back! And Garry, as always, love your remembrances of your interviews. Had heard Cagney was a regular guy and fun to interview……lucky you, my friend!

    Thanks again Colin! KEITH

    • Thanks, Keith. Yes, check it out when you get the chance; I don’t think it will disappoint.
      And I fully agree – Garry’s memories of interviewing Cagney are most welcome.

  12. I’ve not seen this, but you bring up an interesting point, about our expectation of certain actors. Sometimes we pigeonhole them into types of roles we’re more familiar with. I’m certainly guilty of this to an extent. For example, I have a hard time thinking of someone like Ray Milland fitting in well in cowboy mode, yet many speak highly of his few westerns, such as A MAN ALONE. Ditto Fred MacMurray. Both those guys seem so at home in contemporary, urban settings, but they were of a generation which seemed naturally at home tapping into the tougher, grittier side of life, no matter the setting. Regarding Cagney, I think I’d personally have a harder time with a young Cagney (such as in THE OKLAHOMA KID) than I would with the older, craggier version here. What I guess I’m trying to say is that I think the western genre was such a widespread, major force back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, that most actors of that time seemed to find themselves working in westerns at some point in their careers – often to surprising effectiveness. At any rate, this sounds like a fine film and your write-up makes me eager to see it.

    • Yes, those are all guys who don’t sound like they ought to be a good fit in westerns. And yet they all did some remarkably good work in westerns. A Man Alone was a terrific vehicle for Milland, and MacMurray is excellent in the superior but almost unknown Quantez.

      Your point about an older Cagney is a good one, and applies to many actors of that era/generation. A lot of them seemed to “grow into” westerns, and it’s maybe no coincidence that the genre itself was hitting its peak at around the same time.

  13. Thanks for reminding me about this neglected western. I haven’t seen it in ages but I just bought the MOD. That completes my Robert Wise collection. I now have every film he directed that’s been released on DVD. What I love most about films directed by Robert Wise is the lensmanship. Wise knew lenses. He kept up with all the new and latest lenses. He knew how the perspective and image of a Angeneux 28mm differed from a Bausch & Lamb 28mm, for example. By the 1970s Wise’s lensmanship rivaled that of Stanley Kubrick. Look at The Andromeda Strain.

    Colin, Disney’s TONKA is available on amazon now:

    It’s an absolute must.

  14. Colin, I hadn’t picked up on the resonance of Jocasta’s name – but now you’ve said it I can definitely see the Oedipal subtext. I saw this film a couple of times a few years back – looking back at my own review, it seems I had reservations about it on a first viewing, thinking that it all looked too gorgeous and that the ending was a bit unconvincing, but I think I liked it more second time around. The part that stays with me the most is Cagney’s sadistic punishment trek, which I found powerful and haunting. I also remember that Cagney has a little trick in this film of running his fingers through his hair when he is worried – he often has hand gestures for each character.

    • Judy, I hadn’t realized you’d looked at this movie yourself. I just popped over for a look and left a comment – others can read your piece here.

      That long punishment walk is pretty intense and highly memorable – the beauty of the scenery and locations really contrasts with the harshness of the action at that point. And you’re right about Cagney’s little mannerisms, many of the great stars had a store of such things to help flesh out their characterizations.

      • Many thanks, Colin, very kind of you to link to me. I like your point here about the beautiful scenery contrasting with the violence of the action.

        I meant to say that I am a few years older than you, at 53, and the first TV dramas I remember liking were Western series, The Virginian and Alias Smith and Jones – I bought the box sets of the latter and thought it held up very well.

        • Judy, I remember those TV westerns very well myself as they played on TV quite a lot when I was growing up – The High Chaparral was another favorite of mine back then.
          I just bought the first season of The Virginian recently and although I’ve only watched the first few episodes so far I’ve really been enjoying them.

  15. Finally saw Tribute to a Bad Man, and enjoyed it. Most memorable scene for me was near the end when Cagney is making Stephen Mcnally, James Griffith and Vic Morrow walk for miles in the heat, with no boots on. And the way Morrow’s character just won’t give in.
    And that scene when Dubbins sees the cold bloodedness of the hanging. The silence is chilling.
    And it’s a love story too. Cagney’s character can’t quite believe Jo loves him, and she can’t go on any longer watching him be judge and jury.
    Was a bit disappointed McNally didn’t really have a lot to do.
    Wonder why Irene Papas didn’t do more in Hollywood ( so good in Guns of Navarone).
    To be honest, would rather have seen Tracy in the lead role.

    • That’s great, and good of you to come back and share your impressions. I think most people find the long barefoot march especially memorable. And you have a point about McNally being somewhat underused.

      The romances and love stories don’t always work in these movies, but that’s not the case here. Papas is very good and wholly credible, making her relationship with Cagney seem real and touching.

  16. Colin: I am so glad you finally got to this under appreciated classic. I hope your terrific review will encourage many more to watch this movie.
    I’m so glad Spencer Tracy did not make the movie. He was too old and tired looking in 1956, and he could not ride. In his spare time, Cagney was a farmer , horse lover and horse breeder, so I think the character was easy for him. While people don’t associate Cagney with western roles, he was definitely a horseman in his private life. When he did not live in Hollywood for work, he lived on his farm.

    • It was your strong recommendation of the movie that brought it to my attention, Muriel. So thank you for that.

      I tend to agree with you on Tracy’s suitability for the role. While he could certainly have handled parts of it very well, I do think he would have struggled with some of the more physical aspects.

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